Well you can’t say that you were disappointed with the Wildcard weekend which saw the Eagles, Bengals, Chiefs and Packers eliminated (all bar the 11-5 Chiefs were division winners). It was a week that had it all: shootouts, stingy defenses, mental collapses and fighting spirit; but this weekend is where the big boys come in. There are now only 8 teams with a shot of taking it all and you can be sure that each team will be giving it everything to edge that little bit closer to New York in February.
This divisional weekend throws up a few matchups that we have already seen this season, but this is the Playoffs, regular season form is almost irrelevant in this ‘win and in’ format of the game. It comes down to the best gameplans, the best execution and the simple factor of who wants it the most: something the 12th man in Seattle cannot be questioned on: and that’s where this weekend’s entertainment begins.
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
After their 34-7 humbling in this venue not 5 weeks ago, the Saints will hope they have learned quite a few lessons on their opponents and the conditions in which this game will be played. There will be tens of thousands of Seahawk-crazy fans making it almost impossible for the New Orleans players to communicate, intimidating them, testing their mental strength. The very same crowd will be driving on Russell Wilson and his offense to take advantage of a New Orleans defence that does have weaknesses on the ground, so this is no simple task for Drew Brees and Sean Peyton’s team.
However, I do feel that their win on the road in Philadelphia, while tight, could have set a big standard for the Saints, especially on defence, where they held the explosive Eagles’ offense to only 256 net yards total. If they can bring their well-planned ‘A game’ to Seattle this weekend, they will give their offense a chance to compete against a rested, hungry defence. But Seattle’s D is tough at worst, downright horrible at best, and if they show up to their full potential, even the great Brees will have quite a lot of trouble picking holes in it.
This game will be heavily influenced by the fanatic crowd, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m sure the Saints will have practiced ways to stop this becoming so large a factor as it clearly was the last time these two sides met. Instead, it may be good old fashioned ball security that wins the day. In a possibly rainy Seattle, controlling both the football and the clock will be key, and I just feel that with their supporters behind them, the Seahawks are better equipped to do a professional job here than the Saints are. Marshawn Lynch could have a big day if the offensive line can punch him the holes.
Saints 17-27 Seahawks
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
How about that Indy comeback last weekend? Must’ve been the craziest playoff game we’ve seen in a very long time! Their reward is a trip to Boston to face the Patriots, a tem who are experienced in the art of Playoff football. They’ve been in playoff mode all season, doing enough to win the game, that’s all that mattered to Coach Belichick, and that’s all that matters now, especially when it’s for real.
Indianapolis did an incredible thing last week, but were undeniably helped by the raft of injuries suffered by Kansas City on both sides of the ball. The fact that they only won the game by a point, and conceded 44 points while the Chiefs’ best player, who accounts for 30% of their offensive production at least, was sat on the sidelines, not to return with a concussion, is a worrying thing for Chuck Pagano’s defence. If they play like that this weekend, I have absolutely no doubts that Tom Brady will tear them apart.
Of course the Colts will score a few points on the Patriots, most teams do, but when push comes to shove, the New England offense is a machine that was built to score more points than you. Andrew Luck cannot afford to make the mistakes he made last week; that many turnovers will prove fatal on the road, especially when you’re handing the ball over to a future hall of fame QB who is getting to know his receivers better with every passing day.
Colts 20-34 Patriots
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers
I think that, on paper, this is the closest, most intriguing game of the weekend. These are two teams who are set up in quite similar ways: strong defences, mobile/maverick QB’s and a run-first mentality. So obviously, with the way the season has gone so far, we should expect all these things to go out of the window in favour of a gunslinging shootout.
That’s just not in the DNA of these two.
It’s going to be a tough, bruising affair: much like the encounter between these two earlier in the season, where the Panthers rocked up at Candlestick Park and took the game 10-9. There should be more points in this one though, especially with nerves on edge and passions running high, with mistakes being the deciding factor.
Both teams are very well matched, with the Panthers’ D being marginally better statistically and the Niners’ O being just the more potent by the numbers. It could take a moment of magic to separate these two, and in his third year, it’s time for Cam Newton to step up. But he knows this too: so he’ll throw a 4th quarter interception while going for too much in trying to win a close game.
The presence of TE Vernon Davis and S Eric Reid for hopefully the whole game will be big for the Niners (out with concussions in the first game), while they haven’t lost since Michael Crabtree has been back in the offense. This San Francisco team remembers last year, and now they’re all back fit and healthy, they intend to make amends.
49ers 23-13 Panthers
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos
Beware the #6 seed. It happens nearly every year: the lowest seeded team goes on a run. I didn’t heed it when they rolled up in Cincinnati and outplayed the #3 seed, so I’m going to make sure I sit up and take notice now, and not just because of this trend.
The Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver in week 15, 27-20, and this mental edge is not to be underestimated. Philip Rivers has got the San Diego offense rolling along as a pretty nice clip, and the defence is beginning to fulfil the potential it has showed at various stages of this season. Good thing too, because against Peyton Manning with all of his targets healthy and in the game, they’ll have to play out of their skins.
Wes Welker, the 3rd down machine, was missing from that matchup last time, and his will be a hugely valuable return to the starting line-up, while Manning is showing no signs of being affected by the cold, his age, or anything else: he’s still an incredible QB with a plethora of explosive options to give the ball to.
Denver’s Super Bowl chances lie not with the offense though, their defence has to step up and play much better to make sure Manning can dominate games with his half of the roster. For this reason, the Chargers will scare the living daylights out of the Broncos for most of the game, coming back again and again from Peyton’s attacks. But he’s not a future hall of fame QB for no reason, and it could be one of those nights where he manages to grab the football just in time for a glorious last possession TD drive.
Chargers 31-38 Broncos